On the Side: Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks

I’m always confused by recipe ratings on cooking sites. Depending on what sites you frequent, the ratings aren’t always based on results of the recipe, but on a variety of criteria that has eluded me thus far. Comments should be guides and helpful tips given by those who have gone before, as if their experiences should be rolled up and set adrift in the proverbial bottle for the next intrepid cook to find.

But they aren’t. Why else would Paula Deen’s Deep Fried Balls of Butter have 3 out of 5 stars? Not because they deep fried up some butter and stuck it on a clump of pasta, but because people love Paula. That’s fine and all, but recipe comments and ratings in general have become victims of abuse and are painful to wade through in order to find out whether or not a dish is worth cooking. I have grown wary of comments and ratings on other sites as well, using them only as guidelines.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks - BA
Photo courtesy of Bon Appetit

I attacked Bon Appetit’s February 28 Recipe of the Day, Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks, with the same wariness as I do everything else, wading through the mess of comments and criticism — it seemed to me there was mostly complaining about the texture, though the recipe was receiving good reviews. To me, that could have meant anything.

The comments were mostly around the cheese texture becoming more “curdled” in the oven, like cottage cheese. Everyone had their own idea of how to avoid that happening, and I was pretty sure the problem was with the eggs, but I had to be somewhat true to the recipe and do it mostly as was written before messing with it.

If you’re going to make this with eggs, do as the recipe says and let the dish sit until it cools down to room temperature before putting it into the oven. I was making this on a weeknight so, you know I didn’t have time for that. Cutting corners meant botching up the egg. Next time I will omit the egg. To be honest, I don’t think it made that much of a difference taste wise, especially if I’m not willing to take the time and let everything rest for as long as it needs. I did whisk the egg early and let it sit out so it could warm up to room temperature before whisking my cup of cheese mixture in, but I didn’t let everything rest at room temperature, and that ultimately did effect the texture of the dish, though not the taste.

My version did get the curdled texture other reviewers complained about, but the taste was good. Something else came to mind about it, and that’s how the dish was baked at 400 degrees F. Next time, I’m going to lower the temperature to 350 and bake them in individual ramekins. I don’t think it’s meant to be the overly creamy mac & cheese of childhood; it’s a more sophisticated version with a sauce that sticks to the penne, rather than running all over the plate.

Other changes: I used low fat milk (1%) so mine was automatically going to lack some of the creaminess that was intended, but I was willing to sacrifice that for lower fat content — let’s face it; my butt’s not going to get smaller on its own.

To serve my household, I cut the original recipe in half, and ended up having enough to spread between three or four people. When I served it up, it was a side dish, paired alongside ATK’s Crispy Garlic Chicken Cutlets. There’s just something great about a good, breaded chicken breast and mac & cheese on a plate that I love.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar & Leeks
Adapted from Bon Appetit

2 Tablespoons butter
2 leeks, chopped
1/8 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups low fat milk
2 1/4 cups (packed) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 large egg
1/2 pound penne pasta

Diced Leeks

Lightly butter a small baking dish. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks; stir to coat. Cover saucepan and cook until leeks are tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes (do not brown). Uncover saucepan; add flour. Stir 2 minutes.

I love leeks and the aroma they give off while simmering. They’re like onions, but without the sting.

Sauteeing Leeks in Butter

Add milk; bring to simmer, stirring often. Add cheese, mustard, and pepper sauce. Stir until cheese melts. Remove from heat. Season cheese sauce to taste with salt.

Adding Cheddar Cheese

Melted Cheese

Whisk eggs in medium bowl. Gradually whisk in 1 cup cheese sauce. Stir egg mixture into cheese sauce in saucepan.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Return to pot.

Stir cheese sauce into pasta in pot. Transfer to prepared baking dish. do ahead Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake pasta until cheese sauce is bubbling around edges and some ends of pasta are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Baked Penne with Farmhouse Cheddar and Leeks

Let stand 15 minutes. Serve hot.

In the end this was a nice little side dish, light with a little zip from the dijon, hot sauce and leeks, but I’ve had better, richer macaroni and cheeses. It was tasty, but not what I’d consider the definitive. It all depends on what you prefer for a mac and cheese. This was perfect alongside a chicken breast, and didn’t dominate anything on the plate. It was just comforting and tasty. I’d make it again with changes. As for a weeknight dish, it works well if you’re going to pop this in the oven to bake while you make the main course on the stove top. I had enough time to clean up the kitchen between dishes, so I could start on the main dish.

Weeknight Cooking: B+
Overall Dish: B

Top Chef Season 5, Final Part of the Final Episode: Death by Sous Vide

All hail King Hosea, who hath defeated Stefan the Knave in spatula’d combat!  I liked Hosea from the get-go, and was rooting for him until it was obvious that his best was just not quite good enough for some reason.  I think if Stefan would have made a decent dessert, like any of his other desserts, he would have won.  Do I think Hosea “wussed out” by not doing a dessert?  No.  In a 5 course menu, maybe.   Even if it was 4 courses.  But with 3 it’s a pretty short arc even if you don’t limit yourself to 2 savory dishes.

Carla.  Carla Carla Carla.  The thing that makes this so tragic is she knows she blew it.  She knows she let $100 grand slip out the window because, in the end, she didn’t trust herself.  It was truly painful to watch, and took some of the shine of the fact that Stefan lost.  I won’t belabour the point by wondering why “well I’ve never done it before…” would ever cross your lips during the final.  But I will share a story.  A story of the BEST DINNER PARTY EVER IN THE GALAXY.

It was Squidlegs (mumble mumble)ieth birthday, and he for some damn reason wanted to throw a dinner party.  For 30 people.  Fun!!  Oh and my birthday was around the same time, so would I sous chef for him, and make one dish?  Sure!  Well that “one dish” quickly became an amuse, an app, the original dish, and a dessert.  The only saving grace was that he was making all that stuff, plus 2 gumbos, a salad and the main course.  So let’s go through the thinking process of choosing these dishes, since it’s the same process that Carla should have gone through.

  1. The dishes had to be as fool-proof as possible.  Now obviously the Top Chef people have a larger repertoire of dishes in this category than I do.  But the dishes had to be something I felt very comfortable doing, since even then I could screw it up.
  2. The dishes should have components that can be made ahead of time, if possible.  This not only takes some of the time crunch away from the actual event, but it would allow me to taste things before-hand, and remake it if need be.
  3. This one is a bit counter-intuitive but I needed dishes with non-seasonal ingredients.  Normally you would think just the opposite, and in the Top Chef’s case, they have the skills to see what’s good and then decide what to make.  I didn’t have that luxury and the last thing I wanted was to come up with an awesome fig dish and then not be able to find figs.

My “signature” dish is green onion risotto.  I’ve made it many times and when it works it is really really really good.  So I’ve already got a timing issue here, since I have to make this right before service.  I also have a scaling issue.  I’ve made a double batch of this recipe a few times, but it changes the chemistry of the situation enough for me to realize I didn’t want to more than double it.  Was this going to be enough to feed 30 people?  Luckily this was a 12 course meal, so I went with the tasting menu philosophy.

Mrs. Squidlegs offered to make home-made broth, did I want to use it for the risotto?  Well I would be crazy not to, wouldn’t I?  It must be superior to the stuff in the box I usually use, right?  “I’ve never used real broth but…”  WRONG WRONG WRONG.  Thank you very much, but no I’ll go with the boxed stuff because I KNOW WHAT IT TASTES LIKE.  And I wasn’t even cooking for $100 grand. 

So, an amuse.  This was the closest thing I did to a Citizen Chef original.  I had made Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach, and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce from the French Laundry cookbook one New Year’s Eve for my family, with varying degrees of results.  The butter sauce broke, the spinach was meh, but the parsnip puree was awesome.  And I could make it ahead of time!  I decided to put a quenelle of that on… something.  I tried a bunch of stuff, and a bosc pear worked the best.  You got a hit of the parsnip and vanilla, then the bosc pear, then they merged into something else.  Did I mention I could make it ahead of time?

Appetizer.  I agonized over this one quite a while, but ended up going with soft scrambled eggs with fresh ricotta and chives.  This was pretty pedestrian but it is also phenomenally good.  Something else I would have to make as we served, but oh well.

Dessert.  The flashiest dessert I had was a chocolate mint napoleon.  I tried a few others, including a really good brownie, but in the end I went with the napoleon because it looks cool as hell.  And I could make all the components ahead of time.

So, 4 dishes, only 2 of which I couldn’t make the night before, none of which require any hard to find ingredients.  How did it go?  Well I made twice as much scrambled eggs as I needed, 10 more people than we counted on showed up, so the risotto portion was 3 spoon fulls, and I also had trouble finding parsnips and vanilla bean.  But it turned out fabulous.  Everything was ridiculously good.  I mean every single item.  All the stuff squidlegs cooked was great as well, and he had more work to do than I did.  If we did that same menu 100 times, it would not have turned out that good on 90 of them.  Because even if you plan everything out, things still go to hell when you least expect it.  I never got “in the weeds”, but I came close. 

Squid and I talk a few times a week, and every month or so, we reminisce about that night.  And we congratulate ourselves profusely and with great enthusiasm.  And we realize it was a complete fluke and we must NEVER have another dinner party again because the next one will suck. 

So what’s my point?  My point is if a chuckle-head foodie like me has learned these lessons after cooking in public ONCE, any professional cook who hasn’t doesn’t deserve to win Top Chef.


~Citizen Chef

MoM March ’09 – Best of America’s Test Kitchen: Tunnel of Fudge Cake

I’m kicking myself for not taking more pictures of the Tunnel of Fudge Cake. When I saw the page and the picture, I thought, “Eh, it’s just a chocolate cake.”


ATK Tunnel of Fudge Cake

Boy, was I ever wrong.

As you can see, we’ve moved steadily into the month of March, but we’ve decided to stick with Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2008 for our Magazine of the Month selection. To be honest, I wasn’t even going to make this cake, but when CC said we should continue Best of ATK through March and I ended up needing to bring a dessert somewhere, I decided I would make this cake, effectively knocking out two birds with one stone.

For those of you who didn’t pay the $8 to pick up this must-have paperback booklet (go get it!), you’re in luck — I’m posting this recipe. Back in October, Serious Eats was featuring the Cook’s Country Cookbook as a giveaway, and essentially regurgitated all of the information on this cake that the book had, including the recipe. Their site says the recipe was “adapted” from the Cook’s Country Cookbook, but I don’t think adding a pinch of salt in the chocolate glaze really qualifies as adaptation. I also saw the little trick with calling for already melted chocolate in the glaze rather than putting that step into the instructions, and I’m calling shenanigans. Nice try, though.

At any rate, this is the cake that made the Bundt pan famous. Back then, the lady who came up with the recipe used an ingredient that is no longer being produced. Many new versions of the recipe have emerged in an attempt to recreate the cake, but the Test Kitchen wasn’t happy with any of them. So, they went to work on making a definitive version that really emphasized chocolate. When they were finished, they had succeeded beyond expectation.

The “tunnel” comes from a gooey fudge center that actually looks like a tunnel within the cake. According to the notes from the Test Kitchen, the fudge layer actually separates from the rest of the cake.

Here’s a close up — hopefully you can see the gooey portion in the bottom/bottom-left of the cake.

Tunnel of Fudge Cake Closeup
Tunnel of Fudge Cake, sans glaze

Yes, my friends, that darker colored goop down there isn’t unbaked cake batter: It’s ooey, gooey, oh so rich and delicious fudge.

This cake is the chocolate lover’s dream. Finely ground nuts contribute to a fuller bodied cake and a much needed textural and taste contrast for the chocolate. The fudge center plus the chocolate glaze makes this cake over the top. I couldn’t get through half of my piece without reaching for an ice cold glass of milk. The party I took it to raved about it and ate the whole thing. Some of the guests even had seconds.

Making it was surprisingly simple and did not take a great deal of time. Granted, it did force me to do something I hate doing, and that is prep all three mixtures in separate bowls prior to combining them. I hate dirtying so many dishes but in this case it’s necessary as the cake batter is only just combined.

When the cake has finished its cooking time, you’ll notice it’s done because the edges pull away from the sides — the center of the ring will have collapsed slightly, as that’s the gooey, fudge part of the cake, and won’t rise.

Tunnel of Fudge Cake

3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting pan
1/2 cup boiling water
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups pecans or walnuts, chopped fine
2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed (5 1/4 ounces) light brown sugar
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

For the glaze:
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cake:
Adjust an over rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350ºF. Grease a 12-cup Bundt pan and dust with cocoa powder. Pour the boiling water over the chocolate in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Cool to room temperature. Whisk the cocoa, flour, nuts, confectioners’ sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Beat eggs and vanilla in a large measuring cup.

With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the granulated sugar, brown sugar, and butter until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. On low speed, add the egg mixture until combined, about 30 seconds. Add the chocolate mixture and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Beat in the flour mixture until just combined, about 30 seconds.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the batter and bake until the edges are beginning to pull away from the pan, about 45 minutes. Cool upright in the pan on a wire rack for 1 1/2 hours, then invert onto a serving plate and cool completely.

For the glaze:
Cook the cream, corn syrup and chocolate in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until smooth. Stir in the vanilla and set aside until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. Drizzle the glaze over the cake and let set for at least 10 minutes. Serve.

Best of America's Test Kitchen